Written by Jim Adair
I consider myself happy. In most ways I fit the profile of happy people — I’m married, I’m employed and in good health, I live in a detached home and I was born in Canada. Fortunately I’m past the mid-life crisis stage of some people in their 40s and early 50s who go through a bout of unhappiness, according to studies.
However, a recent Statistics Canada report suggests that if I lived in Saguenay, Que. or Sudbury, Ont. or St. John’s, Nfld., I might be happier than I am here in Toronto. At least I don’t live in Vancouver, tagged as Canada’s unhappiest city in the report.
This is not to say that people who live in Vancouver and Toronto are all miserable — the fact that so many people want to live there has driven the average house prices in those cities to more than $1 million. But the report says other studies agree that life satisfaction and happiness is higher in smaller communities than in the big city. Victoria, Edmonton and Winnipeg are all close to the bottom of the happiness scale, while Trois Rivieres, Que., Thunder Bay, Ont. and Moncton, N.B. are near the top.
John Helliwell, a co-author of the report and life satisfaction researcher at the University of British Columbia, wrote in another study last year that “people are far happier to live in a city or neighbourhood where their lost wallet would be returned. Unfortunately, as in the case of crime, people are too pessimistic about the kindness of others and are needlessly unhappy as a result.”
Helliwell says that Torontonians think the likelihood of their lost wallet being returned is less than 25 per cent. “Yet when 20 wallets were experimentally dropped in urban locations in Toronto, 16 were returned,” he says.
“Thus, we have strong evidence that neighbourhoods are safer and more benevolent places than people believe. Unjustified lack of trust reduces happiness.”
A 2012 study by the Vancouver Foundation says, “Trust is a key factor…When strangers living in close proximity become trusting neighbours, then trust can ‘jump the fence’ and spread to the larger community. Our survey shows that trust is higher when people socialize in one another’s homes. But even smaller interactions have a significant impact on trust. Just talking to neighbours on a regular basis makes a big difference.”
The Vancouver Foundation study found that only about a quarter of Vancouver residents surveyed had a neighbour over to their house or apartment in the last 12 months, or was invited to a neighbour’s home.
Other studies back up the foundation’s findings: “When neighbours know and trust each other, streets are safer, people are healthier and happier, our children do better in school, there is less bullying and less discrimination. We are simply better off in many of the ways that matter.”
“Patterns of neighbourhood connections are pretty much set after a few years,” says the report. “People who have lived in their neighbourhood for 20 years are no more likely to socialize with neighbours than those living in the neighbourhood for three years.”
Getting back to the lost wallet question, the Vancouver study found that 68 per cent of those living in single detached homes thought their wallet would be returned, but only 55 per cent of those living in high-rise buildings (five storeys or more) thought they would get it back.
More than 40 per cent of the North American population lives in high-rises, but the survey says living in a high-rise can diminish neighbourliness, lower trust, make it harder to make new friends and increase isolation.
Although Vancouver residents are among the most connected social media users in the country, they are also among the loneliest in the country, according to a 2010 Angus-Reid poll. “In the end, nothing beats face-to-face relationships,” says the Vancouver Foundation study.
Real estate has a role in reducing happiness in Vancouver. The survey found that 54 per cent of residents felt that the city is “becoming a resort town for the wealthy” and 52 per cent said “there is too much foreign ownership of real estate here.” Residents between the ages of 25 and 34 were most likely to hold these views, perhaps because of the challenges first-time buyers face in affording a home.
Another reason why city dwellers may be less happy than others is because the more time you spend getting to and from work, the less likely you are to be satisfied with life, says a University of Waterloo study. It says long commute times are related to an increased sense of time pressure.
“Some people may enjoy a commute, but overall, longer travel time is linked to feelings of time crunch, which can increase stress levels,” says Margo Hilbrecht, a faculty member at the university and associate director of research for the Canadian Index of Wellbeing.
“We learned that commuters who had time for physical leisure had higher life satisfaction,” she says. “Physical activity can mitigate commuting-related stress if workers can include it in their daily routines, but the obvious constraint is time scarcity. Longer commutes mean less time for other activities, which leads to lower life satisfaction.”
Helliwell says one way city people can feel better is by volunteering, since studies show that people are happier when they give rather than receive.
“Despite the wealth of findings that people who do things for others gain a bigger happiness boost than do the recipients of generosity, people still tend to underestimate the happiness gains from unselfish acts,” he says.